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Firefighters work at the scene of a senior's residence fire in L'Isle-Verte, Que., on Jan. 23, 2014.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

A horrific deadly fire that ripped through a seniors' home in rural Quebec has reopened a debate about whether automated sprinkler systems should be required in all parts of seniors' homes.

"We have been asking this for years," said Yves Desjardins, president of the Quebec association for elder care facilities (RQRA), which represents 646 private seniors' homes with 77,000 units. "Every time there is a tragedy, the debate comes back. And then, as millions would have to be spent to retrofit seniors' homes, people go soft and start thinking it couldn't possibly happen again."

In Quebec, only buildings where residents have no mobility are required to have sprinklers. It is not mandatory where residents are independent or semi-independent, even if the latter require up to three and half hours of care a day, which means they have limited mobility.

Fire chiefs and coroners have been calling for sprinklers in all retirement homes for decades. "Sprinklers could save lives. They'll contain the spread of the fire. They won't put it out, but they'll prevent us from seeing images like we saw today," said Alain St-Hilaire, head of prevention at the Quebec Association of fire chiefs.

The fire is the worst such tragedy at a Quebec seniors' home since 38 people died in a fire in 1969 in Notre-Dame-du-Lac.

In 2011, the Liberal government sought to impose stricter conditions for retirement homes to obtain and renew their licences after some seniors were scalded to death in baths that were too hot.

The Parti Québécois essentially enacted the law as the Liberals had written it, said Agnes Maltais, the Minister of Labour, which oversees the Régie du Batiment, the agency that sets building standards. While the law now requires small seniors' homes to have electronic fire detectors that are connected through a network, the question of mandatory sprinkler systems was left to a committee overseen by the Ministry of Public Security.

"No one is going to let something like this happen again," Ms. Maltais said at the Quebec National Assembly. "If there was a failure, we will act," she added. The government will await results of the coroner and the Sûreté du Québec investigations.

Résidence du Havre's website says it has an automatic sprinkler system. However, according to its provincial licence, it only has partial sprinkler protection.

She said the Résidence du Havre, the oldest section of which was built in 1997, has never been found in violation of regulations. It had more staff than required on the night of the fire. Jean D'Amour, MNA for the riding of Rivière-du-Loup, also praised the home, which is owned by Roch Bernier. "I had visited the building before, and while it wasn't brand new, it was modern and very well kept."

Arnaud Côté, 84, who escaped from the fire, said the building was immaculately maintained. Fire alarms were sounding as he fled the thick, black smoke. "There were six sprinklers in my room," he said. "But they didn't go off while I was there. Maybe it didn't get hot enough, but I didn't get wet until I went outside."

Sprinkler systems are mandatory in Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Jean-Paul Cody-Cox, executive director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, said the organization wants sprinklers across the country in new homes and retirement residences new and old.

"With the types of materials they're building with now, whether it be home furnishings or the actual build of the houses, it can burn faster than older buildings," Mr. Cody-Cox said. Sprinklers, he added, give people more time to escape.

Susan Eng, vice-president of the seniors advocacy group CARP, said requiring sprinklers in seniors residences is an important element in preventing deaths, but not the only measure needed. She said every bedroom should have fire alarms. Fire officials should also approve evacuation plans that include staffing requirements.

"These fires are entirely foreseeable situations. They haven't been rare," Ms. Eng said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is currently in Amman, Jordan, made a brief statement Thursday in a hotel meeting room to express his condolences for the families of the victims.

"We can retain a bit of hope, but the reality seems to be that there is a considerable loss of life," Mr. Harper said in French.

"I know this will be the subject of expressions of sadness and sympathy all across the country and I know this community and its families will be in everybody's thoughts and prayers in the next few days."

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney is on his way to the community and will be the government's representative on the ground.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois also expressed her sympathy from Davos, Switzerland, where she is attending the World Economic Summit.

"I want to extend my condolences to all the families affected by this terrible fire," Marois said. "I have been in touch with my office and we are doing everything we can to support the community and families.

"It's a private centre but we're talking about human beings, so we'll do whatever we can. I am deeply saddened by this event."

With reports from Renata D'Aliesio, Campbell Clark and The Canadian Press

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